12 Years a Slave

Platt, you are a marvel

12yasSolomon Northup’s true story is one of the greatest narratives about slavery and freedom in the history of anywhere.  Published in 1853 (in the years leading up to the American Civil War), Northup’s memoir was a unique look into not only the living conditions of slaves, but the real-life relationships between slaves and masters.  Steve McQueen’s film takes some Hollywood liberties with Northup’s original story (it’s not as if Northup himself is here to protest it, not that he would probably want to relive the brutality through fiction in the first place), but thankfully, he neither Hollywoods the emotional impact nor synthesizes a formula plot.

Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black violinist living in Saratoga.  Through one thing and another, he is tricked, kidnapped, and sold into slavery by a couple of opportunistic charlatans, and finds himself on a plantation owned by baptist preacher William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch).  Once he accepts his position (though never giving up hope of seeing his family again), Northup is able to remain on good terms with Ford, who seems only to own slaves because he’s expected to (one must assume that he inherited his money).  Slaves Robert (Michael K. Williams) and Eliza (Adepero Oduye) are not so lucky.  Northup engineers a waterway for Ford, which leads both Ford and his head carpenter John Tibeats (Paul Dano) to wonder whether Northup is actually more than he seems.  Tibeats’ reaction is one of hatred, and he antagonizes the slaves, especially Northup, every chance he gets – in fact, the character is introduced when he sings the most evil song in the history of cinema (and I hope for Dano’s sake that it doesn’t become a meme anytime soon).

The conflict between Northup and Tibeats (which culminates in a horrific several-minute-long single shot of Northup hanging by the neck while everyone goes about their day around him) becomes a liability for Ford, who sells Northup to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a character so racist and abusive that he might be a caricature if not for Fassbender’s painfully truthful performance combined with the harrowing knowledge that Epps was a real person, and one of many generations of people just like him.  His wife, Mary Epps (Sarah Paulson) is a stock character whose scenes alone with Northup are mostly unnecessary, but whose verbal attempts to emasculate her husband in front of his workers causes plenty of trouble for the latter.  Epps directs his sexual frustrations and violence towards one slave in particular: Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), whom he rapes and brutalizes with absolutely no comeuppance or complaint.

Along comes Armsby (Garret Dillahunt), a white man whose drinking habits cost him enough of his living that he’s forced to get a job picking cotton on Epps’ plantation.  In a bit of nice (albeit appropriately frustrating)  dramatic irony, Armsby commiserates his position whilst cleaning lash wounds on Northup’s back.  Northup asks Armsby for a favor, but we know he’s a red herring and that Northup will not yet escape.  After being turned in, Northup remains on the good side of Epps, who considers Armsby useless anyway (going so far as touching a knife to Northup’s chest and stating, in regards to Armsby, “If he weren’t free and white…”).  Soon after comes the arrival of outspoken Canadian carpenter Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), whom readers of Northup’s book (or viewers of the original film adaptation starring Avery Brooks) know will eventually help Northup escape.  It’s very telegraphed in the film, as Bass has no problem telling Epps that his slaves are human beings and that he has no right to own them (a concept that seems so foreign and ridiculous to Epps that Bass might as well have told him that one day there would be a thing called motion pictures, and that he himself would be played as a villain by a British actor).  Northup bonds with Bass after listening to this conversation, and takes another risk.

It’s difficult to see Northup’s homecoming as a happy ending, because most of us are still thinking of Patsey, who still lives and will eventually die on Epps’ plantation, alongside the countless other slaves still in the south, who were born into slavery and will never know anything else.  The film’s final line, “There is nothing to forgive,” has multiple layers to read.  The titles at the end, which reveal that Northup took his kidnappers to court and lost the case due to the fact that blacks were not allowed to testify against whites, did nothing to stifle the weeping of the entire theatreful of viewers where I saw the film (about a half-hour’s drive from Northup’s home).

The film is (expectedly) a marvel performance-wise; Ejiofor hits a vein of silver as Northup, bringing a careful respect to the character in every scene.  His performance of “Roll Jordan Roll” puts most of the cast of Les Miserables to shame, and acts as a fantastic figurative response to Tibeats’ hate-filled song earlier on (at the expense of reminding the audience that this is a movie).  Fassbender is incomparable in his second role in a row 1) as an American, and 2) alongside Brad Pitt, who acts more reserved than usual, letting the more important characters remain in focus.  What McQueen robs us of, however, is the scene in which Northup actually relates his story to Bass.  This is important; Northup has not told anyone his story in twelve years, and thus not heard himself say aloud who he is, where he is from, and what he cares about.  It’s something we’ve been waiting for, and the filmmakers sacrifice it for the sake of narrative movement in a film that has established a general okay-ness with slowing down and allowing people to talk (certainly, bits of Bass’s anti-slavery diatribe could have been trimmed if the issue was time; actually helping a slave escape holds a bit more precedent).  Nyong’o as Patsey really strikes a nerve: here is the character who receives every imaginable brutality, and gets absolutely no restitution.  Her whipping scene is something that no one will ever forget, and her performance (her face is in focus while blurry images of two or three different characters take turns decimating her) made me feel like I was standing nearby watching it happen, as helpless as Northup to do (or say) anything about it.

Unfortunately, 12 Years a Slave is the most recent (and hopefully last) in a string of movies about two things: 1) slavery, and 2) white people rescuing black people.  Lincoln, Django Unchained, The Butler, The Man With the Iron Fists, The Help, Elysium, etc.  Why the fascination with slavery?  Why not a film where the black characters don’t rely on white saviors?  Why can’t a popular film feature a black protagonist who isn’t the victim of her/his identity as a central point of the narrative?  McQueen’s film gets a pass because it’s a true story, but it still sets a certain trend, especially when it’s so extensively lauded.  I really hate to think the recent onslaught of slavery films has some ulterior motive, as if Hollywood knows it’s a sensitive topic that will automatically place it against the best dramas about other things.

I feel I should end with a lighter-hearted question: why isn’t Paul Dano allowed to play something other than a psychopath?  I’m not naive enough to think the other questions will receive actual answers.

12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave (2013); written by John Ridley; based upon the memoir by Solomon Northup; directed by Steve McQueen; starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong’o.  

Django Unchained

The D is silent, hillbilly

Foxx and WaltzDjango Unchained is what I’d consider Quentin Tarantino’s 10th movie (do the math yourself).  This is the “southern” Quentin talked about in 2007, and it’s worlds better, in many ways, than 2009’s Inglourious Basterds – to date, the only Tarantino film I haven’t watched more than once.  My main issue, maybe, besides the “How many times can we kill Hitler on film?” conundrum, was the fact that Melanie Laurent’s and Diane Kruger’s characters were pointlessly killed off after providing a strong female presence, and their Surprise Demises left a sour taste in my mouth at the end of the film.  Quentin has a history of creating genuinely strong and sympathetic female characters – take Kill Bill’s Bride or Jackie Brown‘s Jackie Brown – Bridget and especially Shoshanna were no exception, but their treatment in their film’s third act turned me off.  Here, in Django Unchained, the women don’t do much of anything – Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), the only female member of the core cast, is basically a walking MacGuffin who waits around to be rescued.  At least she isn’t strangled by Christoph Waltz, though.

The story begins in the 1850s during the height of the American Old West.  Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a former dentist and German bounty hunter, rescues Django (Jamie Foxx) from a couple of slavers on the road.  Schultz, a non-racist non-bigot in a world where the “N word” is essentially used as the technical term for African-American people, hopes that Django will help him identify a group of outlaws called the Brittle Brothers, as Django once worked on a plantation overseen by them.  In return, Schultz will give Django his freedom and 225 dollars.  Django turns out to be a natural shot with all types of guns, and after slaughtering the Brittles on a plantation owned by the foppish Big Daddy Bennett (Don Johnson, being a good sport as usual), Django enters into an arrangement with Schultz: the two will become bounty hunting partners through the winter, and once the snow melts, they will team up to rescue Django’s wife, Broomhilda, from Calvin Candie (Leonardo Dicaprio), an unfeeling Francophile who forces slaves into death matches and prostitution on his plantation (hilariously known as Candieland).

The film’s first act follows Schultz and Django as they travel from plantation to plantation, gathering bounties and battling many of the film’s amazing cast of characters, most of whom carry names only Quentin Tarantino could/would come up with (there are so many good ones in Django, in fact, that a character named Crazy Craig Koonz isn’t even shown).  In this first act, Waltz is the dominant actor, and it’s hard not to see Schultz as the main protagonist.  His charisma and eloquence are a force all their own.  Django essentially plays Schultz’s sidekick until the second act, when finally, it is he who must come up with the plans, who must allow horrible things to happen in order to reach his goal, who must stomach the unstomachable.  Up until this point, the film doesn’t feature most of what aficionados might consider “vintage Tarantino”: the long shots, infinite conversations, and invented language give way to more traditional cinematics, but consider the fact that Quentin is working in an established genre this time: the Western.  Once Candie appears, however, the film’s central scene is constructed: a dinner in Candie’s manor, during which Schultz and Django will attempt to trick Candie into selling Broomhilda to them after pretending to be interested in Candie’s “Mandingo fighting” enterprise.  Also at dinner are Leonide Moguy (Dennis Christopher), Candie’s sycophantic lawyer, Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly (Laura Cayouette), Candie’s widowed sister, Butch Pooch (James Remar), Candie’s head enforcer, and most importantly, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie’s head house slave, a race-traitor who immediately suspects Django and Schultz of foul play and eventually reveals their deception to Candie.  The scene harbors as much suspense and potential combustion as anything Quentin has filmed.  Jamie Foxx’s performance resembles the glass lid on a pot of water about to boil.  We know that if he ever goes through with lifting his gun out of its holster, this whole thing is over.

The third act is not what most will expect, mostly because a third act isn’t totally necessary.  It does not contain Dicaprio or Waltz, and introduces new characters in the form of Australian slave drivers played by Michael Parks and Quentin Tarantino (yep).  Additionally, Billy Crash (Walton Goggins), Candie’s right-hand man, arrives front and center after being a background character for most of the story, which seems a bit “off” only because the role was originally meant for Kevin Costner, who dropped out due to scheduling conflicts (i.e. the absence of Dicaprio wouldn’t have formed quite so large an empty hole if someone equally/more famous took the lead villain role, though Goggins is great).  This brings us, eventually, to a second “final shootout” at Candieland, which leaves only two characters standing and ends the film with the flair we expect from something so charmingly self-conscious.

As usual, Quentin uses his characters well, and knows the genres in which he works better than anyone.  The film isn’t as indulgent as it could be, though the uber-violence (exaggerated blood and extended gunfights) will turn some away.  The pairing of Waltz and Foxx is inspired, fun, and tense, and the against-type casting of Dicaprio and Jackson as villainous characters brings forth performances so strong that you’ll never once consciously think you’re watching Leo and Sam.  Don Johnson’s character gets an extended scene in which he forms a posse (which includes Jonah Hill) to hunt down Django and Schultz, and he never quite gets his plan out because everyone complains about the makeshift masks they must wear (“I can’t see fuckin’ shit in this,” says Johnson in a gut-busting southern accent).  The scene humorously foresees the creation of the Ku Klux Klan.  Bruce Dern, Tom Wopat, Tom Savini, and Zoë Bell pop up here and there, and there’s even an appearance by Franco Nero, who played the title character of 1966’s Django, a violent and ill-tempered western with over 100 unofficial sequels.

Finally, there is the topic of slavery.  Quentin claimed awhile back that he wanted to do “big issue” films in the form of spaghetti westerns and other genre films, and he wanted to do them because everyone else was afraid to.  As much as this may seem like he’s “spoofing” slavery or other serious tragedies from our country’s history, this isn’t the comical revisionist Hitler-death we saw in 2009.  Ethically, this film takes its subject matter very seriously, and the scenes of slave abuse are never exploitative nor meant for ironic humor.  Quentin handles the material responsibly, and certainly does not glorify or rewrite the struggles of laborers any more than last year’s The Help did.  It’s gutsy, transgressive, and not only about slavery, but about the way slavery is portrayed in the movies.

Django Unchained (2012); written and directed by Quentin Tarantino; starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, and Leonardo Dicaprio.